Magazine article The Spectator

The Mother of All Battles

Magazine article The Spectator

The Mother of All Battles

Article excerpt

STALINGRAD by Anthony Beevor Viking, L25, pp. 494

A German soldier in Stalingrad, surveying the misery around him, was heard to mutter, `They must never know at home what is happening here.' It was too painful. But this has not deterred historians from describing the battle in greater detail than almost any other in history, and none has aroused in the reader to the same degree the pity and terror of the participants. Soldiers have rarely been subjected to such intense and prolonged suffering as Paulus's Sixth Army, except perhaps their Russian prisoners trapped in the ruins with them.

Psychologically it was the turning-point of the war. German morale never recovered. We forget that Hitler's succession of victories had been halted a year earlier on the outskirts of Moscow, and that the Afrika Korps surrendered to Alexander in Tunisia three months after Stalingrad fell. Neither of these stupendous events has ever matched the capitulation of the Sixth Army in immediate impact or recollection. Those ten terrible weeks, between the isolation of the city and its surrender, have come to symbolise the awfulness of war itself, like the Somme. Stalingrad was even worse than 1812, for at least Napoleon's army was retreating: from Stalingrad there was no retreat. The nearest comparison might be if the British Expeditionary Force had been totally destroyed at Dunkirk.

Anthony Beevor has had access to fresh evidence in the Russian and German archives, both official reports and personal letters, and has added to them by interview. His purpose, he tells us, was `to show, within the framework of a conventional historical narrative, the experience of troops on both sides'. The strategy is sufficiently explained with maps, although he gradually separates us from events in the outside world as Stalingrad itself was isolated from them. His emphasis is on the suffering within it. We are spared the detail of troop movements and the constant enumeration of corps, divisions and regiments that make John Erickson's two volumes on the campaign such stiff reading. No little numbers perch on the shoulders of Beevor's sentences, but his sources are given, page by page, at the end. He groups subjects like sickness, home-sickness, snipers, food, and 'Hiwis' (the 50,000 Russian deserters or prisoners fighting for the enemy) to relieve the pounding of his main narrative. It is admirably done. One is convinced by his scholarship, and increasingly moved by the drama.

On both sides there was more determination than heroism. The Russians were merciless to the enemy and to each other. When the Germans persuaded Russian children, by the offer of a crust of bread, to fill their water bottles from the Volga, the Soviets shot them on their return from the river's brink. …

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